In the Tents of Kabul
Written by: Rosanne Klass, October 2007, in Commentary Magazine
When I first went to Afghanistan in the 1950’s, I knew nothing about the place, and certainly had no idea that I was beginning a lifelong involvement. If I could find it on the map, that was only because some graduate students I knew at the University of Wisconsin had taken jobs teaching English in Kabul; they would write back about their trips to visit the Taj Mahal in India or to vacation in Ceylon and other similarly exotic adventures.
My own eyes were fixed on Paris. Like most aspiring literary types in the decades after World War II, my boyfriend and I felt it necessary to spend a significant amount of time on the Left Bank. The problem was money. In those days there were no semesters abroad or student tours, no jets or charter flights. I had managed to get myself from the Middle West to the water’s edge—New York City—but a starting job at $35 a week could take me no farther than that. Then our friends in Kabul wrote that the Royal Afghan Ministry of Education was hiring more teachers, and suggested that we join them. The living there was cheap—and, most importantly, the Afghan government would pay for our transportation. We could stop in Paris going or coming, or both. So off we went to the Afghan embassy to sign up for an American-run school in Kabul. Then we got married, and sailed.
A few weeks later, with a stopover in Western Europe behind us, I found myself uneasily en route to Central Asia and a country about which I still knew almost nothing—not even what language was spoken there. The New York public library had turned up only a Lowell Thomas travelogue, a memoir by an engineer who had worked in Afghanistan in 1913, and a few articles in National Geographic—the usual camels and veils beyond the Khyber Pass. I was vaguely aware that Afghanistan was a Muslim country, but had no idea what that might mean for an American woman—or that I was about to find myself in a totally masculine society, where local women were secluded by the rules ofpurdah, concealed in their homes by high adobe walls, and shrouded from head to foot when they ventured out.
To be sure, this was nothing like the violent craziness that would characterize rule by the Taliban decades later; it was more a matter of rooted tradition rather than of fanaticism, and there were already many Afghans who wished to seepurdah abandoned. But in 1929 a premature effort to outlaw it by royal fiat had led to upheaval and the abdication of the reformer king, and nobody was prepared to take that risk again. Although foreign women like me were exempt from purdah, that only made for further awkwardness, since ordinary Afghans were not quite sure how to behave in our presence.
Kabul was very different then, a city of a few hundred thousand. Only government offices and the post office had telephones. Electricity was weak and erratic. There was not a mile of paved road in the entire country. Buses and trucks, donkeys and bicycles streamed through the bustling bazaars, but there were relatively few private cars; you walked, or rode in rickety one-horse buggies. When night came, the unlit streets fell silent; one could hear a dog bark on the other side of the mountain ridge that split the city. The night sky seemed like obsidian, hard and remote and dusted with multitudes of stars.
We certainly had no thought of finding a Jewish community there; it never occurred to us that there might be one. But soon after our arrival in Kabul, it was our good fortune to meet a leader of that community, a businessman of substance and dignity named Shaban Ibrahim, who was to become our friend and mentor.
Shaban was a prosperous importer of commodities like cotton, a broker and financier, known and respected from Beirut to Japan (as I was to discover many years later when his name opened doors for me in both places). Not long before, he had sent his wife and three children, all of whom he adored, to Israel. He intended to join them soon, and then to move on with them to New York. For this he would need to learn English. And so we met.
My husband and I were a couple of naive kids, just out of college, but for Shaban we were knowledgeable Americans who could introduce him to the world he planned to enter—and we were Jewish, so we had to be well taken care of. Kind, and painfully lonely, he took us under his wing and made us his surrogate family, shepherding us through our years in Kabul. And through him, we caught a glimpse of a world that was even then vanishing forever.
Today, the Jewish community of Afghanistan has entirely disappeared, reduced at the end to two crotchety old men squabbling over who owned a single remaining Torah scroll that had apparently been confiscated by the Taliban; at last report, only one of them survives, living in the shell of an old synagogue. But as recently as the 1940’s, Afghan Jews numbered in the thousands, most of them in Kabul and Herat, the ancient city on the Iranian border to which many Persian Jews had fled to escape forcible conversion in the 19th century. Four synagogue buildings have been identified in Herat alone.
There had been Jews in Afghanistan for at least the thousand years of its Islamic history and perhaps long before that. Everything in that land stretches one hand into the present while the other reaches backward into an infinite past. Certainly the communities of Herat and Kabul were ancient, and most Afghan Jews were native-born; in some cases, so were their forefathers, as far back as they knew. Others had arrived at various times from Persia, Central Asia, India, or Russia to flee persecutions or to take advantage of the opportunities offered in this historic crossroads of trade. At times the Muslim world had been more hospitable to them than Europe; many Afghans, in particular, were adherents of a relatively tolerant school of Sufism.
Several years after I left Afghanistan, the towering minaret of Jam in the remote central mountain massif was rediscovered—the last surviving remnant of the capital city of the 12th-century Ghorid empire. A Jewish cemetery was also found nearby; when I returned to Kabul in the 1960’s, I saw Hebrew-inscribed tombstones from Jam in a corner of the Kabul Museum. Despite the Mongol invasions in the 13th century that destroyed much of the earlier historical record, there are indications in medieval Jewish texts that Jews may have settled in this area much earlier, in the Buddhist and Zoroastrian eras, long before Islam arrived in the 9th century. Some think their presence might even go back as far as the era of the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century B.C.E.
Under the Muslims, Jews had to put up with restrictions that affected other non-Muslims as well (like the small Sikh and Hindu communities), and at times were subjected to special pressures and discrimination. But they were citizens, and in the mid-20th century many had prospered, their position undisturbed by the war between the newborn state of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Afghanistan murmured the requisite formalities of sympathy with its Muslim brethren, but then went its own way. In fact, Afghans generally do not like Arabs, and Afghan officials spoke to me hopefully of opening diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
For Afghan Jews, however, the creation of Israel was an ancient dream come true; the promise so often recited in their prayers had been kept, and many now left to find their place in the promised land. By the time I first arrived, Kabul’s dwindling community seemed to be without a rabbi, though the remaining families actively strove to maintain a Jewish life in their homes.
At the time, the community in Kabul still numbered at least a few hundred. Many were so-called “Bukharan”—i.e., Central Asian—Jews, who a generation or two earlier had fled Soviet rule in Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand, and other centers where they were no longer welcome either as Jews or as merchants and traders. In Kabul, most of them became involved in international trade and import-export. Officially, such businesses were restricted to Muslims, so Muslim partners served as front men; everyone knew, and everyone understood. Business was conducted largely in Persian (written in Hebrew script) through a worldwide network of agents to whom the Kabul traders were linked by long-standing marriage and family connections.
These Afghan Jews had their own customs, unfamiliar to me and sometimes unique. The Passover seder table, for example, included a mysterious tray of green onions, and midway through the seder everyone seized a few and started beating their neighbors about the ears with them, laughing heartily. I have never been able to find out why.
The Herati, a minority in Kabul, claimed slightly superior cultural and social status. Therefore, even as the overall community had begun to shrink, the two groups maintained separate synagogues. As for Western Jews, who were or should have been at the top socially, their numbers had been reduced to a physician, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who left after World War II ended, and, earlier, the great archeologist Sir Aurel Stein. And now there were the two of us. As American Jews, we were on a pedestal—perhaps I should say a two-tiered pedestal, for as an American Jewish woman I truly was treated like a princess.
During our first few months in Kabul, confusions and snafus at the ministry of education left me without my expected position. My husband was teaching at the university, but for me there was nothing to do but stay at home in our high-walled compound. As an unveiled woman who spoke not a word of Farsi, it was difficult to go out and explore the city. With every passing day I fretted more about my sense of uselessness. Thus, when the opportunity arose, I was glad for a chance to do some private tutoring.
We first learned about the Jewish community through Mayer Abraham, an energetic young businessman who had handled some matter for our friends and used to stop by occasionally to polish up his conversational English. Mayer was planning to emigrate to the United States, but was living meanwhile with two uncles who had similar plans. One of them was Shaban Ibrahim. All three having sent their families ahead to Israel, they had taken up bachelor quarters together. One day Mayer said that his uncle Shaban knew only a little English and wished to inquire if I would give him lessons. I immediately agreed, and invited them to tea the next day.
They arrived promptly at the appointed time—rather unusual for Kabul, where an hour’s tardiness was not considered discourteous. Shaban Ibrahim was completely unlike his ebullient nephew: a dignified man in his late forties, unobtrusively well-tailored, soft-spoken, almost courtly, and very reserved. Despite his nephew’s earlier equivocations, he really knew no English at all beyond a few words of greeting.
He had the look of solid estimable substance and judicious self-esteem that you see gazing out steadfastly from 18th-century portraits of worthy New England merchants. Indeed, for many years he had been the doyen of the Jewish community in Kabul, respected both in his own community and in the wider circles of business and government in which he moved. It was clear from his manner that he was usually self-assured; now, a palpable sense of unease at being walled off by language seemed to have taken him by surprise and disturbed his equilibrium as if by a sudden attack of vertigo.
Shaban, his nephew explained, was hoping to leave within a few months, as soon as he could wind up his business affairs, so he needed to learn English quickly. I promised to do my best, and produced a textbook. Shaban seemed pleased with the proposed arrangements, and in turn invited us to come to Shabbat dinner at his home on the following Friday evening.
When their servant ushered us into the ill-lit, cavernous living room in the silent house shared by the three men, we found them sitting stiffly in a row on an ugly, uncomfortable-looking sofa, as though they had been waiting there for hours. At once all three stood up, bowed, shook hands, murmured greetings, and sat down again. They offered cigarettes, a drink. Then the conversation collapsed, exhausted, while everyone tried to think of some way to revive it.
The sparsely-furnished room baldly displayed their enforced bachelorhood. These were prosperous men, and not unworldly, yet not a single object suggested comfort—nothing beyond the irreducible necessities of graceless sofas and bare, marble-topped tables. Even the flowers stuck into vases in honor of the occasion seemed as stiff and uncomforting as stalagmites. With their families gone, they had pooled their loneliness without diminishing it. I had a vision of them huddling together for comfort on a cold night, like the Gish sisters in peril.
They seemed almost surprised to have a woman at their table again, and all but drowned me in solicitude. The dinner was very good; the conversation a strain. Since Shaban refused to attempt English, and his painfully shy brother seemed to know as little as he, their nephew was kept hectically busy trying to sustain a social exchange involving a great many repetitions of “What? What did he say?” and long explanations of every explanation. As we sat over coffee, the three men consulted briefly in Persian and Mayer turned to us again to explain.
“It is Sukkot, you know,” he said, the harvest festival that follows close upon the High Holy Days. I did not know. Kabul operated on three calendars—the international Gregorian calendar, the traditional daily Afghan calendar, and the lunar Muslim religious calendar—and I could hardly keep track of any of them, let alone the Jewish one. So I just nodded politely. “There is a family across the street—they have built a sukkah in their garden,” Mayer continued. “Would you like to go there to see it? They have invited.”
I had not seen a sukkah in years. When I was small girl growing up in Iowa, I always found them very pretty, and I well remembered the flimsy trellised booths in the back yard of our Reform synagogue, trimmed with leaves and pieces of fruit: symbols of the huts dotting the harvest fields of Judea so many eons ago. It would be pleasant to go—and ungracious to refuse. Besides, our conversation seemed to have reached its outermost limit.
So out we all went into the shadowy street, chilly in the autumnal air, the men leading the way to a gate some yards distant. At their knock, we were let into a dark courtyard and through a house, its rooms well lighted but vacant. Then we stepped through another outer door and I stood still, astonished.
I was in a large pavilion, perhaps twenty or more feet square, that filled a courtyard. Its high framework was of straight peeled saplings set into the earth. Overhead, fresh green boughs were thickly interwoven to make a fragrant roof. The walls were deep-red carpets, hung like tapestries from the outer roof poles; they glowed in the warm yellow light of oil lamps. More carpets covered the hard-packed earth. Around the sides of the room, bright cushions and smaller rugs were profusely heaped. Great brass trays were set out before them, filled with steaming pilaus, fresh fruits, pomegranates, dates, pistachios, almonds.
Family and friends, aunts and uncles, grandparents, young children—all were sitting about on the cushions, eating, talking, laughing. As we entered they looked up and paused, and in that moment, before they rose to greet us, two thousand years slipped away.
At the end of the room, amid the cushions, a young woman knelt beside a child, her face turned to us. And that face was the face of Rebecca at the well, it was Rachel, it was Sarah, it was Ruth gleaning the fields beneath the eyes of Boaz. For that face Jacob had labored seven years, and yet another seven, in the service of Laban. Solomon had sung of that face; Eugène Delacroix had painted it; William Blake saw it in his Visions. Until then I had thought that they were dreaming.
She was perhaps less than twenty years old, but queenly and tall, “like the cedars of Lebanon.” The biblical words seem to shape themselves. Her face was oval; her skin, smooth and faintly olive; her nose was high, arched, and aquiline; and her eyes—enormous, shining, incredibly dark and liquid, utterly serene. I had never seen such eyes and have never seen them since except in a book of the reliefs from the palace of Ashurnasirpal—and those were not gentle, like hers.
Her black hair lay smooth and glossy, drawn back under a flowing head scarf. When she rose, I saw that she was seven or eight months pregnant. But as she moved across the pavilion to welcome us, she held herself with such grace that her heavy body, in flowing robes, seemed to enhance the beauty of her movements.
She was the mistress of this house. Around her were gathered her younger sisters, the smallest perhaps seven or eight years old; each of them turned to us the same countenance. Her parents were there, too, and other relatives, but in none of their faces was there a sign of that proud unaware beauty. Her husband glanced at us from time to time to see if we had recognized her splendor, and threw admiring looks at her of which she was apparently oblivious.
We were warmly welcomed; our plates were heaped with fruit. The company took up the thread of the evening again, singing and talking. Incongruously, one of the men brought out a short-wave radio and everyone was hushed as he tuned in to a program of music from Israel. As the children grew sleepy, they curled up quietly on their cushions, for the family ate and slept in this sukkah throughout the week-long festival. A breath of wind occasionally stirred the leaves overhead and swayed the hanging carpets. The sweet scent of ripe fruit and contentment overhung the warmth of the room. The young wife moved about, attending to the wants of her guests: a presence, an aura of a dream.
Outside again, in the frost-touched midnight, the desert stars glittered faintly, far away, and the chalky light of the pale full moon froze the silent streets and the high walls into a vista of ancient memory. And I thought: I have seen Ur of the Chaldees, I have sat in the tents of Abraham.